When we told people we were heading to Oklahoma for the weekend, the typical response was a raised eyebrow followed by a confused “why?” In their defense, it’s not exactly a hopping travel destination, especially the panhandle region. But aside from the fact that I had the entire soundtrack of Oklahoma! stuck in my head the whole time, I really enjoyed our visit. Plus, we checked another state high point off the list!
We arrived on Friday afternoon and checked into our home for the night at the campground in Black Mesa State Park. It’s a strangely organized park, with four separate camping areas all mingled with the other attractions, including trailheads, boat ramps, and day use areas. Our site was in the Lakeside camping section – the best section, in my opinion, when it comes to views. We had trees in our site for shade and a view of Lake Carl Etling – the small reservoir around which the park is built.
What we did not have, however, was easy access to water or bathrooms. Something that wasn’t clear on the map when I booked our site is the fact that these facilities are located in only one of the four campground sections. It wasn’t a huge deal; it was only about a 3 minute drive out and around and we had two water jugs we could fill. But it would be nice if this was better explained during the reservation process. Also, signage is lacking, the park office was closed when we arrived, and there’s no phone service… it took us a couple wrong turns before we finally found our campsite.
But once we got to the site, we really enjoyed it. The sky cleared as the afternoon thunderstorms dissipated, there were pelicans on the lake, and when darkness fell we could see hundreds of stars, despite the bright moon. Black Mesa State Park has some of the darkest skies in the country and they’re currently applying to become an International Dark Sky location.
On the way out of the park the next morning, we stopped for a few minutes to hike a short trail to a high point and view the petrified log exhibit.
Black Mesa itself is actually detached from the state park, located about 20 minutes northwest in Black Mesa Nature Preserve. We pulled into the trailhead around 10:00am and began the 8.5 mile (13.7 km) round-trip hike to the summit. Aside from the roughly 500 foot (150 m) ascent of the mesa around mile 2.5, it’s a fairly flat hike and we made quick work of it.
Once we reached the top of the mesa, it was still about a mile across to the actual highest point, which is denoted by a stone marker. From here we had views in all directions, an expansive look at the Oklahoma panhandle and surrounding states. From the high point, we could see into New Mexico (the border is only 1300 feet to the west), Texas (31 miles south), Kansas (53 miles northeast), and Colorado (about 5 miles north). Fun fact: Cimarron County – the westernmost county in the Oklahoma panhandle – is the only county in the entire US that borders four different states.
From the summit we could also see Capulin Volcano in New Mexico, which we’d visited a couple summers back. Prior to these trips, I never knew there were volcanoes in this area of the country. But in fact, Black Mesa gets its name from the dark layer of volcanic rock on top. We could see many other rock layers within the mesa and on the surrounding rock features as well, including brown, tan, and red. Not to mention all the flora and fauna we saw: cactus, pronghorn, dozens of hawks, and a horned lizard, to list the highlights. It’s easy to pass off the plains as boring but we found plenty of neat things to look at.
The hike only took us about 3 hours, so by 1:00pm we were back to the car. If you know me at all, you know I’m not one to just relax for the rest of the day. We had a couple more things to see before heading back north to Colorado.
Just up the road from the trailhead is an unmarked dirt road out to some dinosaur tracks.
Eight minutes up the road is the tri-point where Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Mexico meet. There’s a stone marker called Preston Monument marking the location, so we stopped for a photo and some three-states-at-a-time antics.
And then we waved goodbye to Oklahoma and headed back into Colorado. Our destination for the night was about 2 hours north in the town of La Junta. This would put us closer to our two final places we planned to visit before heading back to Denver. I’ll talk all about those in the next couple posts, so for now I’ll leave off with this photo of the flattest stretch of land I’ve ever seen in my entire life.
So long, Oklahoma!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: the Black Mesa trailhead is located in Black Mesa Preserve, off Co Road 8 in Cimarron County, Oklahoma. There is basically no phone service out here, so make sure you know how to get to and from the park; we almost had a huge issue with this because I couldn’t get service to navigate with my maps app and my road map didn’t show the dirt roads we were on
- Fees and passes: none
- Hiking: round-trip hike to Black Mesa is 8.5 miles (13.7 km) with 670 feet (205 m) of elevation gain; most of this gain occurs from mile 2.5-3
- Where to stay: for camping, reserve a site at Black Mesa State Park, just 20 mins from the trailhead; for lodging, the nearest towns are Kenton and Boise City
- Other: Oklahoma is on Central Time, so if coming from CO or NM there will be a time change